Kentucky Employees Moving Ahead On Lawsuit To Halt Education Layoffs
By Peter Schmidt
The Kentucky Association of State Employees is expected this week to file suit against the state education department to halt plans to fire roughly 10 percent of the department's staff as part of a top-to-bottom reorganization.
The department announced last month that 49 of 425 staff members based at the agency's Frankfort headquarters would be terminated at the end of June.
The action was taken under the state's 1990 school-reform law, which requires the commissioner of education to formally terminate all department employees and abolish their positions by the end of June as he overhauls the state agency. About 90 percent of the current staff is expected to be retained, however, to work within the new education department, officials said. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)
Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen argues that the reform law gives him the power to hire and fire education-department employees without regard to state merit-system protections as he carries out the reorganization effort.
State Attorney General Frederic J. Cowan has endorsed that view, writing in an opinion issued last month that laws protecting the rights of state employees do not "entail protection from legislative abolishment of their positions and termination." Merit-system employees who have been terminated from the education department may not appeal to the state personnel board, Mr. Cowan stated.
'Protecting Our Members'
But Lee A. Jackson, president of the employees' union, contended in a interview last week that Mr. Boysen has exceeded his authority by dismissing employees without cause.
"We don't believe that the actions he has taken are legal," Mr. Jackson said. "We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect our members."
Merit-system protections continue to apply to department employees, Mr. Jackson argued, adding that, "if employees are dismissed, then they should be dismissed with cause."
"I have seen no cause associated with these dismissals," he said. ''A merit system has to stand for something, and it stands for the protection of workers."
Mr. Jackson noted that "there is no case law in Kentucky for this type of situation." He said the union hoped that the courts would provide guidelines for the treatment of state employees when an agency is abolished.
Commissioner Boysen has argued that the merit system guarantees only that those who are being let go from the department be provided with placement assistance and counseling and considered first for open jobs elsewhere in state government.
Union officials complain that the treatment of workers who are being let go has been insensitive and abrupt, and that other employees have been demoted or involuntarily transferred to new positions.
A spokesman for the department last week acknowledged that employees were being asked to accept or turn down new jobs without being given firm salary offers, and that people were being interviewed for new jobs for which they had not applied.